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The Geospatial Information Authority of Japan (GSI) provides an online contour map of the entire country, allowing anyone to virtually explore the land with just the click of a mouse. The Hoshida 60 aren’t well-annotated on this electronic resource, appearing as just a contoured amoeba splattered on a low mountain range between a golf course and a series of housing projects. I take a screen shot and print out a blank map, together with a list of the mountains and my trusty GPS for the first excursions into the hither lands of Hoshida.

The footpath behind my house follows the Amanogawa river towards the northernmost section of the Ikoma mountain range. The river, named after the Milky Way, is loosely tied to the origins of Tanabata, a tradition brought to the Kansai region from China in the 8th century during the Nara period. Indeed, every July a festival commences on the banks of the very river I now pursue, though in the ‘new normal’ of COVID these celebrations are now currently on hold.

After heading upstream towards the mountains, I veer southwest, up and around the alleged hiding place of Tokugawa Ieyasu in the post-Nobunaga turmoil of the late 16th century. A small monument within the grounds of Myokenzaka Elementary school marks the bamboo forest in which Tokugawa and his army of followers sought refuge. The bamboo sways gently in the mid-autumn breeze as the path navigates through the sakura groves of Myokenzaka and into the deciduous forests of the Hoshida mountains.

I turn right at an unmarked trail that immediately shoots skyward. Grabbing tufts of exposed tree roots and overhanging branches, I pull myself up to the start of the undulating ridge of sandstone scree that make the Hoshida mountains so treacherous to traverse. The narrow ridge trail follows the contours of the land, and after 10 minutes I reach the summit of ① Mt Ishibashi (石橋山), the first of the Hoshida 60. I pause briefly on the summit of the 180m-high knob, catching glimpses of brilliant autumn foliage through a gap in the trees.

 

The path drops abruptly down the eastern face, climbing gently to ② Mt Nukutani-mine (抜谷嶺), a nondescript bump just a few minutes from Ishibashi. With two peaks already off the list, I continue on with an additional pep in my step, until coming head long into an impossibly steep scramble known as the Sōen korori. The scree here is relentless and some might say that a sheet of ice would have better purchase then this gritty mess of a mountain face, but I somehow manage to avoid tumbling into the depths and reach the summit of ③ Mt Sōen (宗円山). I pause here for my first rest of the day, wiping the sweat from my brow and poring over the map to figure out the remainder of today’s course. With so many options to choose from, I spy a loop hike back to Myokenzaka via a spur track a bit further down the ridge.

A short traverse on the undulating ridge leads to ④ Mt Minami-Sōen (南宗円山), where the track drops to a saddle and a flattened drainage area littered with freshly fallen leaves. The shoulder of the broad trail is marred by the foraging tusks of wild boar, resembling a roughly plowed vegetable field as the nocturnal creatures dig for sustenance without a care in the world. This section of forest is truly peaceful and hard to believe that it’s part of my neighborhood. I prefer these unknown swaths of forest any day over some of the terribly overrun trails of the Hyakumeizan. My only fear is that some budding author will publish a guidebook to the Hoshida 60 and that every pensioner will swarm in looking for that magic pot of mountaineering gold.

I soon reach a junction for a spur track leading to Umaki. I turn left, leaving the main ridge behind and immediately commence a steep climb on a narrow, untrodden spur toward the skyline. Without the aid of fixed ropes, I am forced to rely on what nature has provided: scrambling over toppled logs and grasping onto unsteady roots as if my very life depended on it. It is truly amazing that such treacherous mountaineering can be found at just an elevation of 200 vertical meters.

At the top of the abrupt scent sits the narrow summit of ⑤ Mt Umaki-mine (馬木嶺), dominated on the southern face by a massive oak tree toppled by the forces of typhoon Jebi back in 2018. Many of the mountain trails in Kansai still bear the scars of damage from this massive storm. Sometimes I feel that I should just take matters into my own hands and carry a hacksaw on my hikes and clear the paths one rotting log at a time. The scar created by the downed tree creates a gap in the tree cover, affording my first views of Mt Atago, which is unfortunately engulfed in a smoggy haze.

The trail splits here, and I initially take the wrong spur on a heavily eroded section of ridge that forces me down on all fours. I soon halt my progress, check the GPS, and retrace my steps back to Umaki, finding the correct track in a narrow gap under the toppled tree. I scuttle down an intense field of gritty scree, soon reaching a gap in the ridge at an eroded saddle. Too broad to leap across, I instead turn around and lower myself feet first to the bottom and bound up the other side for yet another abrupt scramble to the top of ⑥ Mt Jizōtani (地蔵谷山), where I once again pause to catch my breath, for these mountains are providing a surprising workout.

The trail continues from here down off the mountains, but it is too early to call it quits, so I retrace my steps up and over Mt. Umaki and back to the main ridge, where an unmarked path drops to a secluded valley. A stream crossing is made easier with a set of metal staircases, likely installed by Kansai Electric in order for maintenance workers to reach the electrical pylons lining the Hoshida range as if to remind visitors of Japan’s conquering of nature. As expected, the ascent up the opposite slope is sharp and unforgiving, and the sound of voices in the distance gives me pause. I turn around and stare down directly into the fairway of the Shijōnawate golf course. Only in Japan would you find a golf course built in such unforgivable terrain, relegated to land unfit for housing or agriculture.

 

I push on, above the chatty linksmen and into the dizzying heights of 266 meter-high ⑦ Mt Ōtani (大谷山), my high point for the day. The ridge here has seen much more foot traffic, as it sits on the edge of the Hoshida Enchi, a public park dominated by a massive concrete suspension bridge that somehow attracts the Instagram crowds. Here I am faced with two options: either head south along the ridge for the ascent of 7 more of the Hoshida 60 or loop back toward my home with just one more peak in between. Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I opt for the latter and start salivating at the thought of a warm lunch inside the comforts of home.

 

Turning north on the narrow ridge, I soon pass by an electrical pylon and stick to the heights, reaching  ⑧ Mt Koban-no-mine (小判ノ嶺) a short time later. The track here is overgrown, as not many hikers opt for the strenuous up-down of the mountain tops. Pushing through bamboo grass, I continue over a series of unnamed knobs and drop off the ridge to my right on an unmarked track that leads to Hoshida Enchi. I cross over a rope and ‘Do Not Enter’ sign draped across the narrow track I had just descended. Apparently the upper reaches of the mountains are outside of the park jurisdiction, as the city does not want clueless tourists to wander on these treacherous ridge lines and rightfully so – despite my status as Hyakumeizan alumnus, I would rate the Hoshida 60 for experts only due to the their exposure, the loose footing on the gritty sandstone, and the necessity to possess advanced route-finding skills.

 

Having visited this park numerous times since relocating to Katano city, I find myself in familiar terrain and simply turn left on the well-maintained trail down to complete the loop. After a brisk 30-minute descent, I reach the fork I took earlier in the morning for Mt Ishibashi and cruise back to home in time for lunch – or so I thought. Spurred on by the temptation of one more peak, I veer off the main road and enter the precincts of Hoshida Myoken Gu, an 8th century sanctuary that was purportedly built by Kukai to commemorate a meteorite that landed on the summit of the mountain. I march up the steps to the back entrance of the shrine and climb an unmarked trail behind a sub-shrine for the short scramble to the summit of ⑨ Mt Myōken (妙見山) to complete the ennead.

 

 

 

The Hoshida 60 – Prologue

2020 has been quite a year, one that everyone hopes will never repeat itself. A worldwide pandemic, multiple advisories to avoid unnecessary travel, and an abrupt shift to working from home for the majority of the year have become all but routine these days. Mountains would have to wait, or would they? Sure, the meizan and loftier alpine peaks were out of reach, but the ‘new normal’ has forced me to look inward, to explore mountains in my own backyard that I had once put off as being too small and unworthy of exploration.

Flanked on either end by a series of electrical pylons, with the town built right up to the foothills on the front, and an intrusion of a golf course sculpted between the fine contours at the back, the Hoshida range does not appear in any magazines or mountaineering programs on TV. In fact, a mention of the Hoshida 60 would be greeted with a blank stare from anyone other than the most diehard of locals. Still, I can see them from my house every day, and can walk to them easily without risking infection by boarding a crowded train. Yes, they would have to do.

So, in order to retain a bit of fitness, and as a way of getting to know my neighborhood better, I accept the challenge and partake on a new adventure to climb 60 mountains: sit back and join me from a comfy armchair in isolation, as we ride out the pandemic together, one knob at a time through the hidden forests of Hoshida. 

Reasons for revisiting a mountain vary. Some appreciate the scenery and climb a mountain a second, third or hundredth time, while others look for revenge on a peak scaled during bad weather. But I do not fall into either category. My first ascent in 2003 was under favorable early-autumn skies, and I do not recall the summit scenery being anything other than disappointing due to the concrete and erosion. My intent this time around is much simpler – to acquire a bit of altitude before heading above the treeline next weekend, for I have spent way too long at sea level waiting out the COVID storm.

Breakfast at our accommodation is served at 7am and we are on the road by 7:30am for the short drive to the chair lift parking lot, which fortunately has a few empty spaces. It appears that the day trippers are still making their way up the switchbacks to Minokoshi at the head of Iya Valley. Instead of the lazy way up the mountain, Paul and I walk downhill to the Torii gate marking the entrance to Tsurugi jinja, a sanctuary sitting at the top of a long row of concrete steps. About 10 stairs into our ascent, we spy a grassy clearing on our left ringed by Buddhist statues facing an immense full-color sculpture of Fudō Myōō grasping his sword and standing guard – a rarity for a deity who is usually displayed in a seated position. En no Gyōja sits in front, ringed by stone lanterns and guarded by a pair of komainu lion dogs. So sits Shugendō Buddhism, relegated to a side stage during the Meiji era and left forgotten by all but a few of the fellow visitors who must go out of their way to pay their respects.

Back on the main concrete trail, Tsurugi shrine sits at the crest of the hill, overlooking the lost denizens of Iya Valley like a faithful caretaker. After muttering a quick request for safe passage, we pass under the shimenawa draped between two cryptomeria and start our ascent on a proper trail through a lush hardwood forest glistening in the early morning light. Soon the path crosses the chairlift whisking lazy hikers up the first 200 meters of vertical elevation. Safe passage is provided via a corrugated metal tunnel running directly underneath man’s scar on the otherwise pristine landscape. I always wonder how Fukada would feel about such modern intrusions, as in his day, climbers had to access the mountain via a series of long, multi-day trails starting far down in the valley below.

Part hiking route, part nature trail, the path is lined with katakana signposts on the trees, a good way to brush up on those familiar tree names: the usual beech and Mongolian oak take center stage, but surprised as we are by a spindle tree and several rowan trees thrown into the mix. Our route switchbacks alongside the chair lift, the early morning silence broken by the cacophony of loudspeaker announcements. Perhaps it’s time for Japan to introduce that bluetooth technology and just stream these superfluous explanations to passenger’s smartphones instead. The last thing I want to know when riding a chair lift is the when and where of the contraption – the bigger question is why?

A cliff band soon comes into view, flanked on the lower end by a corrugated metal sanctuary presumably housing a buddhist statue or shinto entity. The answer to such a mystery remains out of reach, as the building sits off a side trail that we just can’t be bothered to explore, rushed as we are to beat the clouds in our race to the summit. Flattened terraces on our right have been crafted into well-placed camping platforms, affording favorable views across the ridge to Jirōgyū, our secondary target after ascending Tsurugi.

Just beyond the modest campground, a pair of depilated buildings mark the entrance to the top of the chair lift as fresh-legged hikers alight as if they’re emerging from the subway turnstile. Here a series of paths diverge in three directions. We opt for the trail adorned with the Torii gate and begin a long, gentle traverse under the summit plateau watched over by a field of purple monkshood in full bloom. Vistas open up to the west, dominated by the pointy hat of Miune sitting on the edge of a steep drop towards Iya Valley. Beyond, the rest of the peaks of the Tsurugi range fold onto one another, foreshortened as they are by this direct angle.

Otsurugi shrine is the next landmark to present itself, the distinctive eaves of its red roof still cloaked in shade from the shadow of the summit plateau looming above. The shrine abuts the craggy spindles of Tsurugi Iwa, which from this vantage point distinctly resemble swords for which Tsurugi derives its name. Fukada refutes this source, instead indicating that the name Tsurugi was given due to the legend of a buried sword related to the 12th century Emperor Antoku. Antoku died at the untimely age of 6, so whether this tale is simply a matter of fact or fiction remains to be seen. My gut feeling is that this rock formation itself is the true origin of the name, as you can’t prove that a sword was actually buried on the summit, but you can definitely prove the existence of a spear-like crag. Plus, if you close your eyes and press your hands against Tsurugi Iwa, you can definitely feel the presence of the Shugendō monks of yesteryear, who certainly chanted a mantra or two during their search for enlightenment.

With the clouds rising in direct proportion to the summer humidity, we press on, through a grove of Erman’s birch to reach a trio of structures sitting directly on the edge of the summit plateau. Affording pleasant views across the valleys of Tokushima and further afield to Daisen (on exceptionally clear and cloudless days), a narrow path perforates the space between the two structures, offering access to the summit itself. The nearer of the trio of structures, flanked by an impressive steel Torii gate, houses the main shrine of Tsurugisan Hongu, a Shintō sanctum hawking lucky charms at mountain summit prices. A large rock formation rises abruptly behind the space, home to the mountain deity and another piece of real estate likely usurped from the hands of the Shugendō monks.

The other less austere structure is home to Tsurugi Chōjō Hyutte, a rustic two-story mountain hut built in 1955 by 新居 熊太 (no idea about the proper reading, after searching endlessly). He built the hut when he was already 65 years old and spent the next twenty years running and making improvements to the wooden structure. He must have crossed paths with Fukada Kyūya himself, but more research will be required to determine the extent of those interactions. One thing is for sure – the summit looks entirely different from when those first support beams were hauled up from the valley below those 65 years ago.

Beyond the hut, the route enters a vast plateau of lush bamboo grass, with elevated wooden walkways encircling the circumference of the rotund summit. Gone are the concrete buildings and heavy erosion of two decades ago. A well-designed eco-toilet building with a sloping roof complements the lush landscape. Even the antenna adorning the top look smaller than before: perhaps a direct result of my fading memory over the last 20 years. Paul and I head off away from the summit on a side walkway for a rest away from the crowds. A middle-aged man sits on a wooden viewing deck, taking in the sight above the sea of encroaching cloud. “The sunrise was amazing from here”, he claims, having ascended in the pre-dawn hours as an excursion from a business trip to Kobe. “I’m actually from Yokohama”, he confesses, bracing himself for admonishment for having traveled out of the prefecture during the pandemic. But I only offer words of encouragement, as I’m sure he’s had more than his fair share of guilt-by-association for living in a COVID hotspot.

After a quick snack, the two of us opt for the right fork at the toilets and walk counterclockwise to the summit, where the chair-lift crowds have now reached the top. The triangulation point sits between a split in the walkways, wrapped in a shimenawa rope in an apparent effort to keep hikers from trampling it to oblivion. A nondescript signpost cants heavily towards the encroaching bamboo grass. We pause for a few seconds before continuing along the ridge towards an attractive mountain named Jirōgyū – Shikoku’s third highest mountain. I share the descent with a trail runner as we talk about the mountains of Japan’s 4th island. Paul pushes on ahead to escape from our vibrant chatter. The route bottoms out at a saddle before the steep, sweat-inducing climb to the top, an ascent that is accompanied by the rising cloud of the day.

We sit in the cloud and devour our lunch, taking in brief breaks in the fog to relish in the vibrant greenery of summer. It is a comfortable 23 degrees, as least 15 degrees cooler than the valleys nearly 2000 meters below us. I had always thought that Osaka residents needed to head to the Japan Alps to escape the summer heat, but all we need to do is to head a few hours west instead, an enticing proposition as we continue to ride out the ebbs and flows of the pandemic.

 

 

 

 

Mt. Ushiro – Looking Back

Nestled snugly along the prefectural border of Okayama and Hyogo lies a formidable ridge of mountain peaks towering high over the secluded village of Chikusa. Known to Shugendō practitioners as the Nishi Ōmine, or Mt Ōmine of the west, the southern face of Mt Ushiro is home to the 13th century temple known as Dōsenji, whose inner sanctuary is still off-limits to women. Since there are two females in our quartet of hikers, we opt to skip this misogynistic nightmare and instead opt for the straightforward ascent of the southern face of Mt Funaki, followed by a half-hour stroll along the ridge to Mt Ushiro.

Paul pulls the car up to the small parking lot just opposite the idle campground. The trailhead is smothered with signposts in various states of decay, but from what we gather from the remaining bits of faded text, it is a 2km climb straight up the spur to the summit plateau, followed by a short descent to an unnamed saddle and a final climb up the western face. Paul, Mayumi, Maggie and I set off in single file, marching towards that summit ridge along a rocky promenade ablaze with autumn delights. 

The path initially follows a small ravine along a narrow path marked consistently in red tape marks and signposts in much better condition than found below. One such way mark indicates we are trespassing along the Chūgoku Shuzen Hodō, a well-established network of paths penetrating the 5 prefectures of the Chūgoku region. All in all it covers a mind boggling distance of nearly 2300km and would be an immense undertaking for even seasoned walkers, though content as we are with this slither of a 2000 meter stretch of track.

Our route soon leaves the comforts of the valley floor and climbs abruptly through a glorious collection of hardwoods that have already started shedding their summer coats. By the time we reach the halfway point of the climb the trees are completely bare: a start contrast to the brilliant display of autumn hues just a few hundred vertical meters below.

After passing through a small grove of towering hardwoods, an upkept section of planted Hinoki cypress escorts us up the furthest reaches of the slopes to the start of the spur proper. This cypress follows us along the ridge that doubles as a property line. The forests to our right are owned by Dōsenji temple and retain their centuries-old charm, while to our left a thick wall of planted trees squeezes the life out of the forest. Many ridge lines in Japan retain this unique feature, and no greater a contrast can be found during the fall and winter season in this unsanctioned struggle between deciduous decrepitude and evergreen encroachment.

Our pleasant ascent in solitude is broken by the symphonic squalls of bear bells from the upper slopes ahead, as a battalion of elderly hikers descend toward us. Such groups two dozen strong are hardly a rare sighting in the mountains of Japan, as most visitors seem to visit the mountains to socialize rather than to seek spiritual solitude. We utter a quick greeting while letting them pass.

The spur soon intersects the summit ridge on the top of Mt Funaki sitting just 10 meters lower than Mt Ushiro at an altitude of 1334 meters. Funaki happens to feature on the list of Shisō 50 Meizan, or 50 peaks of the Shisō region of Hyōgo Prefecture. Fukada Kyūya’s greatest shortsight is in not trademarking the meizan name, for his estate would be quite wealthy with the plethora of ‘famous mountain’ lists permeating every region of Japan.

After a short break to catch our breath, we drop along a brilliant ridge of bamboo grass for the pleasant half an hour stroll to the summit of Okayama’s highest mountain. To be honest, it’s hard to call this peak part of the Chūgoku region as it lies in closer proximity to Kobe than Okayama. In fact, Mt Hinakura sitting directly opposite the valley is featured on the list of Kansai Hyakumeizan. But as I’ve told countless individuals before: “I didn’t choose the mountains – the mountains chose me”.

Paul brews up fresh coffee for everyone as we take in the warm autumn sunshine and stellar panoramic views. It’s hard to believe this is my final ‘Highest Prefectural Peak’ west of Fukui. There are still half a dozen more mountains to go, but I have faith that I can finish them off before I grow old and grey. As I look back over the preceding years, I consider myself lucky to have come this far, climbing mountains with faithful companions and escaping close calls with leaky valves and bleeding lungs. 

We retrace our steps with the fading afternoon light as our accompaniment – it is these descents that I truly cherish in my mountain quests. With strong knees and, carried by the momentum of a successful ascent, I tend to shift into autopilot, but with the wilting light I walk spellbound, transfixed by the absolute beauty of the deciduous groves in their seasonal metamorphosis. 

 

2014 was an explosive year for volcanic activity on Japan’s mountains. While worldwide attention was focused on the catastrophic eruption of Ontake in late September, an increase of seismic tremors under the Nakadake crater lake on Mt Aso caused a small scale eruption just two months later. This was the start of increased volcanic activity, culminating in the explosive 2016 discharge which sent billowing ash 11,000 meters into the sky, landing as far away as Kagawa on the island of Shikoku. Therefore, the last 6 years have caused a quagmire for the Hyakumeizan hunters, who would either need to break the rules or put their quest on hold before knocking off their final peak.

As a Hyakumeizan alumnus, I do my job to help out a few disciples by offering a bit of advice and, on occasion, an extra set of eyes and ears as I accompany them on their journey up the hallowed peaks. So when Alastair informs me that the restrictions on Mt Aso have now been lifted, I jump at the chance for a revisit to see exactly what nature has done to the peak. Such reopenings of trails on active volcanoes are usually short-lived, so it is definitely a now-or-never mentality as Alastair aims for peak #95 on his ever-shrinking list. Plus, he offers to do all of the logistics, including the driving to the trailhead. All I need to do is to board a train to Kyushu. Who could resist?

We pick up the rental car outside of Kumamoto station on a cloudless morning on the cusp of the Silver Week holiday. Japan has been on unofficial lockdown for most of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the government seems obsessed with saving the economy at the expense of public health and has introduced a ‘Go to Travel’ scheme that basically involves paying common citizens to travel in Japan. Thus, here we sit in gridlock as half of the island of Kyushu seems intent on visiting the volcano.

Most of the major roads leading through the interior of Kumamoto Prefecture are still being repaired due to 2016 earthquake, meaning there is no easy or fast way to get to Mt Aso. Backroads are rammed bumper-to-bumper with slow-moving vehicles that edge their way along the edge of the outer rim of the volcanic crater, which has a circumference of nearly 114km, making it one of the largest in the world. 90% of the traffic is heading up towards Kusasenri and Nakadake crater, where overpriced restaurants and horse-riding attract throngs of tourists who have mostly kept their distance for the last 6 years. Once past the turnoff, traffic becomes much lighter. While there is a trailhead at Nakadake crater, we opt for the northern approach via Sensuikyo, the trailhead furthest from the active crater. If Aso decides to blow its nose, we have the best chance of survival.

The parking lot is crammed with cars as Alastair secures one of the last empty spaces just after 10am: we had hoped to be on the trail at least an hour earlier, but had not anticipated the traffic. The information center sits dark, shuttered behind locked doors that have likely been gathering dust for at least half a decade. The small toilet complex is unlocked and has fortunately seen a recent cleaning. The slopes just above the restroom are littered with cables dangling from the concrete pillars of the old ropeway system. During my first visit 18 years ago, the gondola was very much still in operation, shuttling lazy hikers a third of the way up the volcano to the edge of the ridge line. There is definitely a post-Sarajevo Olympic vibe here, though the cause of such decay seems to be neglect rather than war.

A path leads straight up the slopes and parallels the ropeway ruins, and it is this concrete path that I used on my first trip to the volcano, but during that time I became intrigued with another route called the Sensui-one spur that climbs a steep ridge just under the Takadake high point. It is along this route that Alastair and I now turn our attention. The trailhead entrance lies on the opposite side of the car park, marked with a small wooded bridge spanning the Sensui ravine. Along broken bits of concrete we initially prance, followed by a narrow path recently cleared of underbrush. The start of the spur is soon reached, offering a refreshing bit of rock-hopping along the weather-beaten pumice.

A generous lathering of yellow arrows delineates the route, but in the overcast autumn skies we can clearly trace the path all the way up to the summit plateau towering 600 vertical meters above. As we climb higher, the vistas across the valley behind us open up to the Kujū mountains rising majestically out of the fertile valley. A giant white stupa constructed near the trailhead feel distinctly southeast Asian, perhaps even Burmese in nature if someone would be kind enough to bring a truckload of gold paint.

Alastair and I make good work of the spur, powered by a self-imposed race against the volcanic gods. One sudden tremor or plume of steam on the horizon would mean a sudden abandonment of our climb and a quick scramble for shelter. Loitering on an active volcano is something that no one should do unnecessarily, so while our plan is to enjoy the hike, we keep the pace brisk and the rests brief.

It takes around 90 minutes to reach the Takadake crater rim – stretched out before us is an older, dormant crater lined with verdant grasses and affording stellar views across to Mt Sobo and Mt Okue to the east. Crisp autumn winds push in from the north, keeping us moving up the final few steps of the pyramidal form of Takadake. A few dozen other hikers lounge around on the summit, while the buzz of a drone pierces the still air. At least the lack of tranquility will (literally) keep us on our toes.

We pick up the track down to a saddle below Nakadake, where the gentle gradient brings thoughts of the Scottish hills to mind. The route takes us towards the active crater of Nakadake, which seems a bit like slipping out of the frying pan and into the fire, but an unforeseen force attracts us towards the pillar of steam billowing from the giant crater.

Continuing south, the first signs of the eruptions present themselves, as the entire landscapes takes on a tinge of brownish-gray dust, staining the signposts as if crafted by a spray gun artist. We are now within the 1km strike zone, an area that no other hikers have visited apart from the several dozen other trespassers staring in goggle-eyed disbelief.

 

The track drops to a narrow saddle and climbs to an overlook uncomfortably close to the active crater, but we push on, spellbound and transfixed like a veteran rubbernecker. Gazing directly down into the hissing crater, I wonder how long it will be before this vista will once again be off limits to all but the most dedicated volcanic researchers.

I turn around and trace my eyes up along the ridge we had just traversed, with the top hat of the Nakadake summit teetering on the edge of the abyss.  A pair of concrete bunkers sit just off the ridge, partially collapsed by the force of the series of powerful eruptions. While these emergency shelters offer protection from small stones, a cataclysmic eruption of the crater would perhaps allow you enough time to send a farewell text to a loved one.

A concrete path used to run from here to the top of the ropeway, but now it is nothing but the remnants of rain runoff with bits of cement piercing through the fresh layer of ash. We reach the top of the ropeway ruins, a structure that would probably have received less damage had it actually been hit by bombs. Perhaps the Nakadake crater showed its discontent by trying to wipe this eyesore off the face of the earth.

Luckily for visitors, the ropeway ceased operations in 2010, meaning no one was actually in the structure during the series of volcanic explosions. While this building may seem like a wet dream for the haikyo hunters, visitors are advised to stay well clear of the incredibly unstable structure, which seems hellbent on collapse with nothing more than a strong gale.

The concrete path that runs alongside the ropeway is slowly being taken by the forces of nature, making the path rather pleasant among the tufts of greenery swallowing the remaining remnants of surfaced walkway. We follow a handful of other hikers down the rolling slopes towards the parking lot.

It would make for a peaceful end to our hike if not for the thumping crescendo of an approaching helicopter. The chopper heads above the summit of Takadake, where a lone figure is winched down to the ground. In conjunction, a sextet of rescue workers ascends at a brisk pace to offer back-up. The lead is connected via radio to the chopper team, who are in the midst of a rescue operation. We give way to the team, offering words of encouragement for what will likely be the first of many missions on this busy holiday weekend.

Once back at the car, we final exhale a sigh of relief. Alastair can now count the remaining Hyakumeizan on one hand and now has everything west of the Japan Alps off his list. Just one peak in Hokkaido, one in Tohoku, and a trio of peaks in the South Alps stand between him and his goal of finishing the 100.

 

The heat of the August sun continues to berate western Japan, sending temperatures into feverish heights and turning every step into a delirious mess of sweat and confusion. If you can’t stand the heat, you clearly need to get out of the kitchen and head to higher ground. A long-overdue revisit to the ‘4th island’ is just what the doctor ordered.

I take an early pre-rush hour train to Kobe to meet Paul, whose 4-wheeled Sedan will shuttle us across the Akashi strait and into the gentle flatlands of the old Awa province. We make good time, rolling into the town of Mima shortly before noon, where a roadside stop of toriten (chicken tempura) alleviates the hunger. We pore over a map of the region, deciding to take the ‘faster’ route 438 to the Tsurugi trailhead, which will allow us for an early check-in and quick afternoon hike before dinner.

Fueled by a cool can of Barista Black, Paul navigates the narrow road away from the valley and along the Sadamitsu river through a narrow gorge dotted with traditional houses clinging halfway up the steep mountain slopes. They appear constructed not by creatures of the human race, for they seem to have been placed there by an alien spaceship rather than carefully constructed by the tools of man. The dwellings are situated on slopes exposed to the sunlight for adequate crop production and, considering the effort it takes just for a trip into town, they must be pretty self-sufficient folk who occupy these isolated refuges.

A signpost for Narutaki falls gives us pause, as we park on the narrow shoulder for a quick gaze at the two-tiered waterfall dropping from an immense height. The falls look tiny from here, and the tourist map indicates a forest road leads to the base of the falls, but in what condition awaits to be seen. At a further turnoff, the tourist literature leads us to Dogama basin, a swift-flowing waterfall that weaves between a narrow band of granite cliffs. The crystal clear waters beg further inspection, and with the full strength of the afternoon sun and temperatures in the mid-30s we head upstream a bit for a natural soak in the buff.

Body heat dissipates immediately, provide much-needed relief and an extra boost of energy for the side trip to Naru falls. The forest road looks to be in immaculate condition, but instead of retrieving the car, we opt for the 700 meter walk along the deserted asphalt. The lower basin of the falls looks inviting, but the buzz of mosquitoes keep us from stripping down. A weather-beaten statue of Fudō Myōō overlooks the towering water, and a side trail takes us up steep switchbacks to the upper basin, whose trickling waters must surely be thundering during the rainy season. Today they appear harmless, except for slick moss-covered rocks that would thwart any attempt to scale to the top of the falls.

Back at the car, the real climb begins, as the road narrows through a series of hairpin turns past an abandoned ski resort and onto the turnoff for our accommodation. After checking in and dropping off our things, we each grab a bottle of water and a camera and hit the trail for the 1700m summit of Mt Marusasa. The map time suggests an hour ascent, but with just 200 vertical meters spread out over 1.7km of track, we make good time through a lush forest of conifers that would not look out of place in the Yatsugatake mountain range. Such unspoiled sections of woods are hard to come by, and with the lingering late afternoon fog, we walk spellbound by their beauty.

The fog continues to escort us above the trees and into a vast meadow of bamboo grass. A trio of sika deer flee for cover, barking cries of discontent to warn other members of their pack about the encroaching intruders. Paul and I reach the summit just before 5pm under the veil of mist. Sweat clings to my shirt as I take a drink of water to replenish the lost fluids. Despite the slight humidity, temperatures are comfortable, hovering around the mid-20s at this altitude.

With a 6pm dinner call, we retreat back towards the forest, only to be halted by a break in the clouds as the stubborn fog finally begins to lift. A bird’s-eye view directly down into Iya Valley, beaming with angelic light in the fading rays of the day. Tsurugi sits just opposite, entangled in its own battle with the cloud.

It is for these moments that truly make an excursion to the mountains worthwhile.

For all the times I’ve been caught in the cloud’s thick grasp, I occasionally get lucky and get the timing right. As the light begins to fade, so too do we begin our retreat back to civilization. A hearty meal of pork shabu-shabu hot pot goes down well, topped off with a generous helping of zosui rice that leaves the belly full. After dinner Paul and I retreat outdoors to take in the stars and relish in the comfortable temperatures. It really is possible to escape the summer heat by heading to the highlands of Shikoku.

 

I feel violated, a victim of a robbery I knew was coming but was not completely prepared for. While I thought the thieves would access the motherlode via the lower extremities, I had forgotten rule #1 of hiking in the mountains of Ōhara: watch your head. So, as I wipe the blood from my abdomen, I reflect upon my crucial mistake.

Ted pulls his car into a small lot just off route 477 in the tiny hamlet of Momoi in northern Kyoto. It is just before 8:30 as the morning cloud conceals the piercing heat of the rising sun, a day which threatens to bring temperatures in the upper 30s. Our task is simple: a quick loop up Mt Naccho, the final of the 10 peaks of Ōhara and a chance for me to stretch the legs after self-quarantining for half the year. Mid-summer and blood-thirsty leeches go hand-in-hand in these stretches of cedar-choked hills, so I tighten the cordage on my summer gaiters in order to keep the thieves out of my shoes and trousers. William, in true Aussie fashion, opts for the t-shirt and shorts approach, while Ted feels confident in his long trousers and nimble reflexes.

The three of us stop off at a small nondescript shrine adjacent to our parking space and offer a quick greeting to the mountain gods. William spots the first of the leeches descending the moss-smothered staircase with the grace and agility of a miniature Slinky. This one looks fully grown and well-fed, feasting on the inadvertent handouts of the shrine worshippers. We retreat back to the safety of the asphalt and walk through the sleepy village to the trailhead. Ted offers his respects to the grave of a fallen naval soldier, timely it is on the cusp of the 75th anniversary of the end of the war.

The trailhead is soon reached, marked by a handmade sign for ナッチョ. Our peak goes by two names, the first of which is 天ヶ森 or heavenly forest, but it is this other name in katakana that intrigues us all. Where did it come from and what does it mean? It is in these forests that we seek answers to our questions.

A meandering forest road ushers us past a collection of discarded refrigerators and other appliances rusting away beneath the moss. Perhaps ナッチョ is an obscure Kyoto-dialact term for neglect. While those thoughts float around in my head, the relatively cool temperatures afforded by the cloud cover provide us the opportunity to make good work of this abandoned road to nowhere. Using the GPS to help show us the way, we leave the road on an unmarked path switchbacking its way through the upper reaches of the cedar plantations to the summit ridge alive with the lush greenery of an untouched swath of hardwoods.

With cedar on our left and deciduous trees to the right, we straddle the ridge, enjoying the contrast of the conflicting forestry policies of the neighboring villages. The trail leads above the forest road towards an unmarked summit before cutting a sharp right for a short traverse below the ridge with intermittent vistas to Lake Biwa in the east. The sun shines through gaps in the clouds, so the pace is swift yet relaxed, and just one hour after leaving the car the summit of the 813m peak is reached. We celebrate as any mountaineer would – by breaking out the nachos!

The tortilla chips are spread between us, with a cup of store-bought nacho cheese dip that looks unnaturally green and has the taste and smell of a neglected pickle. Ted screams in disgust, kicking himself in his haste for accidentally purchasing the guacamole version of the dip instead of the savory fondue con queso. We stick to just the chips themselves, be it as it is still just 9:30 in the morning and way too early for a filling lunch. Summit proofs are snapped as the clouds threaten to burn off completely, forcing us on the move to escape the heat.

Instead of returning down the same trail, a track to the northeast sticks to the ridge and meanders along the undulating contours of the mountain range. Well-marked with pink tape in places, followed by a tricky exercise in route-finding past a lush valley and along an adjacent ridge to reach Mitani-tōge. A left turn here off the ridge leads through a narrow rope-lined traverse above a mountain stream. The track is wet and apparently filled with leeches, who take advantage of our slow, absentminded descent to commence their heist. As we reach the forest road, Ted feels a pinch on his leg, lifting his trousers to reveal the blood-sucking culprit feasting on a vein of red gold.

As I laugh at Ted’s expense, I too feel a pinch on my belly just below my liver. Lifting my shirt, I find the leech firmly attached to my midriff – how it got there I can only surmise, but neither thought is very comforting. Ted offers a bandage so I can keep the oozing of blood off of my one and only shirt. William, the one left most exposed in his shorts, has not one leech attached to his legs. Whatever he ate for breakfast I would like to know, for it must surely be a leech-repellent.

As we reach the outskirts of Momoi village, an abandoned elementary school sits idle yet well-kept. It’s likely been converted into a community center/evacuation shelter for the local residents. Next door, a stone monument has been erected to a fallen air force soldier – for such a small village to have two fallen war veterans is a testament to just how many available men were forced to do the emperor’s dirty work. I scan the monument, hoping that perhaps this gentlemen went by the name of Mr. Naccho but to no avail.

The car ride back to town is smooth, and even after a quick dip in the river I could still make it back home by 4pm, in time for a refreshing shower to wash away the grime. As I strip off my hiking gear, I notice the upper part of my shirt and rucksack are covered with blood, and in the mirror I spot the kissmark left by a leech right on my juglar! The leech must have parachuted down from the trees while I was navigating that narrow traverse above the ravine. Perhaps it had its fill and dropped off inside my shirt, had a short nap, and then started feasting again on my belly. Or likely there were two different leeches indulging themselves on my succulent B-positive blood cells.

Clean and refreshed, I use my sleuthing powers and old man Google to investigate the origin of the name Naccho. The most likely explanation is a local dialect for the word Nassho (納所), the office for collecting land taxes in the form of rice. Perhaps the local villagers would climb this mountain to escape from the tax collectors or perhaps they would set up a lookout so they could see when the bakufu were arriving from Edo. Or it could have much older connection with Hieizan and Heian-era Kyoto. Regardless, the mountain is apparently on the list of strange mountain names in Japan, and attracts hikers with the sole purpose of climbing the Chinmeizan (珍名山).

 

 

The Ōhara 10 – Minago

After reading Ted’s harrowing account of a recent ascent of Kyoto’s highest peak, I thought it prudent to give a recap of my groundbreaking ascent up Mt. Minago. Let us enter the vaults and take ourselves back to May 2011. While northern Japan begins to pick up the pieces after the March disaster, I team up with trusty companion John for an excursion into uncharted waters. The Kutsuki-bound bus deposits us in a tiny hamlet awash in late plum blossoms. After crossing route 367, the dilapidated forest road leads to the trailhead at Ashibidani bridge. The kanji, translating as “foot and tail” valley, is soon to live up to its name.

A series of log bridges, over waist-deep waters, ferry us safely up the first set of rapids to a well-defined track on the right bank of the river. Without these fastened crosswalks, it would surely be a foot and tail exercise hopping up, over and most likely through a set of oblong boulders. Some time between 2011 and our current CoVID times, a series of typhoons and floods have swept through the valley, toppling trees with the whipping tail of the wind and kicking away these bridges with their swollen feet. Had I known the current condition of the track, I surely would have given Ted advanced warning.

The footbridges give way to fixed ropes strung across the river at strategic crossing points. That, coupled with generous decorations of pink tape on the trees, mean navigation is merely an afterthought. The wild, untouched valley we climb is truly stunning in its cedar-deprived beauty: these narrow gorge walls are no match for the tree plantation owners, who leave this sliver of untrodden Kyoto be.

Voices in the distance entice John and I to pick up the pace, and sure enough, we soon run into a quartet of young Japanese hikers out on an excursion. We naturally join forces, with John and I taking the lead as we follow the river to its source and then navigate a headwall of towering beech trees still yet to sprout their summer-green cload. It takes nearly an hour of zig-zagging up the final section of track, past swaths of fringed galax in full bloom, to reach the summit of Kyoto’s highest point.

The unmistakable hump of Mt. Buna-ga-take sits directly opposite our vantage point, with the last stubborn patches of snow clinging firmly to the exposed northern slopes. Our sextet clan perch ourselves on a flat patch of summit, chatting away about mountains while sharing chocolate and hot bowls of soup prepared by Aki, the leader of our recently-merged group. We pore over the maps and eye three possible descent routes, neither of which are clearly marked.

Just south of the high point, a signpost marked teradani (temple valley) is affixed to the tree, so we head just right of this and into and down a narrow trail affixed with tape skirting the edge of the scented flowers of an andromeda bush. We switchback down through a section of planted cedar smothered in colored plastic tape. This tape is either to tell the harvesters which trees to fell or which trees to keep. I must confess that I have never seen these genocidal workers in action so I can never be sure what function the tape has other than the break up the monotony of the terrain.

The cedars once again give way to deciduous hardwoods, and after losing a couple of hundred meters of elevation, we reach the log bridges ferrying us back to civilization. From here’s is a simple walk along a gravel forest road lined with yaezakura trees to finally arrive at Taira bus stop.

We exchange contact information with the other hiking group and check the bus schedule. With over an hour to kill before the next ride back to Kyoto, John and I use our thumbs to flag down a ride all the way back to Demachiyanagi. It’s a shame that such a lofty mountain has fallen into disuse and neglect. You would think that someone in the region would care enough to nurse Kyoto’s highest mountain back to health, but perhaps we’ll all have to wait until the entire human population rids itself of its other health problem first.

So there you have it – a brief recap of a hike nearly a decade ago. At that time I was focused on the Kansai Hyakumeizan, and Minago happened to be peak #38 (and technically speaking, my first of the Ōhara 10). Anyone attempting to climb Minago in 2020 and beyond had best heed the advice of Ted and stay far away from the valley of foot and tail, and you will surely lose your footing and end up on your tail (or worse, to a place that rhymes with tail).

 

 

 

Back in 2013, Ted and I traversed along the ridge between Hieizan and Ōhara on a hot and sticky summer day. Instead of traversing directly on the ridge, the Tokai Shizen Hōdō cuts through the lower valley to Yokawa before rejoining the main ridge at a junction with the Kyoto Isshu trail. I double-check the route that Ted and I took and cross reference it with the list of the Ōhara 10 and yes, it looks like another trip is necessary in order to walk along the true ridge connecting Mizui and Daibi, two more of the elusive 10. So in early December I once again find myself aboard that Demachiyanagi-to-Ōhara bus that snakes along route 367, but just outside of the village I alight at the aptly named Tozanguchi bus stop for the long climb up to the ridge.

This tozanguchi, of course, refers to one of the side trails leading to Hieizan, the land of the Tendai faithful. Before the ropeway was built on the Kyoto side of the mountain, this was one of the main tracks up the peak, but here in the overcast sky of early winter I find myself with no one other than a gentle breeze pushing in from the west. The route is named the Ganzan Daishi (no) Michi, a route connecting Oogi village in Shiga Prefecture to Yase in Kyōto via the Ganzan Daishi Hall in Yokawa. Gazan Daishi, otherwise known as Ryōgen, is the 9th century monk best known for overseeing an army of purported armed mercenaries vowed to protect Hieizan from rival Buddhist factions. Perhaps this very route was staffed by hidden assassins during the more turbulent times in the history of the Tendai sect. If such ghosts haunt these hidden reaches of this sacred peak, I will soon find out.

The path climbs steeply above route 367 with vistas back across the valley toward Hyotankuzure lathered in late autumn hues. At a weather-beaten jizō statue the path splits: the right fork leads up the kurodani to Seiryūji temple while to my left the trail continues straight to a mountain pass just below Mt Yokotaka. The Lions club have done hikers a great service (or some would say disservice) by marking the route with shiny metal signposts affixed at roughly every 200 feet along the ever steepening route. I pick up the pace, confident that, like most trails in Japan, the #10 signpost will place me comfortably on the ridge.

With a soft coating of wet foliage under my feet and the comfortable sound of solitude guiding my thoughts I fall into that tozan trance, pausing briefly to snap photos of the surprisingly pristine forest. Oak, chestnut, hemlock and fir trees tower over the constricted valleys of Yase, awing me in their sheer beauty. This is in great contrast to the cedar smothered western face of Hieizan. I guess this steep terrain is too much for the forestry service to farm.

After a steady climb of close to an hour I finally reach signpost #10 but am nowhere near the top of the ridge, so I shrug my shoulders and push on through the last of the autumn leaves clinging tightly to the bowed branches above. The gradient finally relents after signpost #13, as the snaking switchbacks give way to a narrow traverse on the side of a valley marred by the toppled trees of a recent typhoon just below the true summit ridge. A few more minutes of gentle climbing and I reach the mountain pass, where the Kyoto isshu trails and Tokai Shizen Hōdō paths diverge. The Kyoto trail continues along the ridge to Yokokawa while the Tokai drops down to Yokawa.  A trio of ancient statuary greet me at this junction, along with a Eureka moment of realization that this is exactly where Ted and I rested back in 2013. If only we had continued along the Kyoto trail at this very junction would my ascent of Mt Mizui have been complete.

The summit of Yokotaka is now within arms reach, so rather than rest at the junction I push on through a maze of exposed tree roots to find a toppled log on the summit awaiting me, a perfect place to rest the haunches and endulge in a late morning snack. Yokotaka feels like an Ōhara 10 summit, but somehow has been left off the list. Perhaps there is some geographical designation to these lists of peaks, meaning they have to reside withing a certain radius of Ōhara village. Or better yet, perhaps the list makers did not ascent my path of choice and have left Yokotaka to her own vices and free from the Ōhara baggers.

Northward I turn, dropping off the southern face of the peak toward Oogi-tōge, basically running parallel to the path that Ted and I took in 2013. While we opted for the lower road to Yokawa, I enjoy the tranquility and the beauty of the deciduous forest laid bare by the frosty gales of winter. To my leftI can glimpse views of the Kyoto skyline, while on my right I spy the snowcapped Suzuka mountains floating off on the horizon through a wall of muted gray cloud. It is just a short drop and steep climb to the tree-covered summit of 794m Mt Mizui, my 6th of the Ōhara 10 and the highest elevation of the day. A row of benches on the broad summit beckon me over, so I eat the remainder of my lunch while glimpsing the tip of a very white Mt Horai off to the north.

Into the cedar forests I reluctantly descend, for the proximity of the Hiei Driveway gives the loggers easy access to a motherlode of monocultural delights. My progress is halted by the sounds of a diesel engine and the crunch of a cedar tree being sucked of life by a giant excavator. Such environmental destruction would normally set me off, but every toppled cedar is one less source of pollen to poison my lungs. I just hope the tree thinning experiment by this bored construction worker (it is a weekend after all) will not result in more cedar saplings to replace the trees taken by the Komatsu regime.

Yellow tape marks wrapped around cedar trees soon catch my eye, printed with the English letters Biwako Hira Hiei Trail. I take a photo for post-hike investigation and do find that a new so-called ‘Long Trail’ is being constructed to connect Kutsuki village in Shiga to Kyoto along the Hira and Hiei mountain ranges. The 60km route takes in 15 peaks above 1000 meters in elevation, including Buna-ga-take, and the rest of the afternoon I will be following this route over to Mt Daibi. It sure seems like a worthy traverse in good weather, as Hakusan, Ontake, and part of the Japan Alps can be glimpsed on days with good visibility.

Oogi-tōge sits on a saddle below the summit of Mt Ono and marks the place where both the Kyoto trail and Tokai Shizen drop off the ridge down to Ōhara, but I stick to the ridge into unexplored territory. The map time allocates 90 minutes to reach Mt Daibi, so I slow down the pace and take in the views through a massive clear cut section of trail. Mt Ibuki and Mt Ryōzen both float above low-lying clouds, gleaming white in the muted colors of the afternoon. If not for the blue hue of the horizon you could easily mistake the scene for a black-and-white movie, as even the surface of Lake Biwa lies still and gray in this eerie hour of the afternoon.

I soon reenter thick forests of cedar as the sun finally breaks through the clouds briefly before ducking back down for cover. The summit of Mt Ono sits in a small pocket of deciduous growth spared from the greedy hands of the forestry service as I once again pause to refuel for the final climb of the day. The Lions club once again ensures that no one will get lost on this section of path, which soon drops and follows a concrete forest road along the ridge for most of the way anyway. Once off the pavement, the ridge turns wild and narrow, the most exciting section of track of the day. I soon pop out on the summit of Daibi and reward myself with a fresh brew of coffee and chocolate.

An unmarked trail leads off the summit plateau due west, so I carry the GPS in my hand while traversing on a narrow spur before commencing a knee-knocking descent down towards Ōhara village. It is a short descent to the top of a narrow gorge lined with a series of waterfalls. I soon reach San-no-taki and carefully descend via a series of metal chains and ladders. I soon enter a very narrow and constricted valley choked with toppled trees and typhoon debris. All signs of a working trail are gone, so I climb atop one of the trees to peer further down the gorge and see tape marks at the end of a maze of fallen cedars. I work my way over, under, and sometimes through an absolute mess of a disaster zone. Perhaps the forestry people could stop cutting down perfectly healthy trees and forage for wood among the thousands of trees destroyed during last several years of ravaging typhoons.

Once out of the mess, I descend down an exposed trail past two more waterfalls before reaching a paved road that leads down to Sanzen-in. I never knew such thrilling scenery sat on Ōhara’s doorstep and the adrenaline rush from a sketchy end to the hike begins to wear off as I reach the entrance to Sanzen-in, Ōhara’s crown jewel. I fork over the entrance free and reach the main garden, splurging on a bowl of fresh maccha while sitting on the engawa taking in the moss-covered scenery. With so few people around this time of year, I really relish in the quiet surroundings and lack of tourists. Little do I know that just 4 months later this very temple will be shuttered to protect itself from a global pandemic changing the modern world as we know it.

 

The good thing about these Ōhara 10 peaks is that many lie in close proximity, meaning you can string together multiple mountains that are situated on the same ridge line without having to come back time and time again. Jesse, Junjun and I board an early morning Ōhara-bound bus packed to the rafters with foreign tourists and weekend daytrippers. We stand for the 50-minute journey as the bus works its way up the meandering curves of route 367 to the newly refurbished bus terminal. Pausing briefly to rest the haunches and relieve the bowels, we follow the signposts in the direction of Jakkō-in temple for just a couple of minutes until reaching an overgrown track affixed with a wooden sign for Yakesugi.

The dense undergrowth gives way to – you guessed it – a dense forest of cedar. If I had a tank of gasoline and a match I could really make this mountain live up to its name. A smattering of red pine trees break up the monotony as the ridge line is soon breached. A quick dip to a saddle followed by a stead climb leads up to the summit of 717m Yakesugi. Through a small clearing on the southern face we take in a bird’s eye view down to Ōhara and fuel ourselves with steamed chicken, guacamole, and hummus prepared by the skillful hands of Junjun.

Dropping down the western face of the mountain through the green canopy of early June, the three of us make good time and arrive at the main junction that leads to the Konpira ridge line. The true splendor of the Ōhara mountains shines forth as the sun lathes the spur in muted shadows accompanied by that warm gentle breeze that precedes the start of the rainy season. This is by far one of my favorite times of the year to hike – still pleasant enough without the stifling heat and humidity soon to follow.

The next peak on the ridge is nothing more than a tree-lined hump in an otherwise nondescript location. Despite the relative lack of effort, we do settle in for a leisurely break while talk shifts to psychedelics and altered states of reality. Talk mind you, for such indulgences are not looked on kindly by the stringent drug laws of this land. Mt Suitai does feature in the Tales of Heike, so despite its modest 577m stature, it might appeal to history buffs looking to walk in the paths of fallen samurai.

We push up higher up the ridge, for perhaps my 3rd or 4th ascent of Konpira. A junction sits just below the summit plateau, where paths fan out in a few directions. Without a bit of GPS intuition it would be easy to miss the triangulation point. The main trail to the high point ascends  to a shrine and along a craggy ridge of eroded rock and typhoon-pummeled trees. A rock formation affords pleasant vistas through the hazy summer skies toward Kyoto city, but we push on, dropping to a saddle before the final climb to the tree-covered top, my fifth peak of the Ōhara 10 and halfway to my goal.

Retreating back to the junction, Junjun takes the lead on the broad ridge past the unmarked junction that leads to the top of rock face popular with local climbers. The contours constrict as the path drops abruptly to the mossy precincts of Kotohira shrine before switchbacking down to a lovely stream that leads us out to the main road to Shizuhara. Just before reaching the road we pass an elderly hiker who inquires about the leech conditions on the trail we had just descended. Apparently the blood thirsty invertebrates wreak havoc on summer hikers, so we quietly congratulate ourselves on our timing.

The stretch from Shizuhara to Kurama follows both the Kyoto trail and Tokai Shizen Hodo  and makes for a more pleasant setting than fighting off the tourist crowds of neighboring Ōhara. A row of vending machines provide much-needed liquid refreshment before the long climb up Yakko-zaka. The lack of shade forces up to our feet but not for long, as the towering cryptomeria trees of Shizuhara Shrine beckon us, as does the adjacent restroom facility that satisfies our call for nature.

It is a long steep climb, mostly on a concrete-lathered excuse for a mountain trail and past a monstrous construction zone marked by a fortress of clear-cut hillside: either this is typhoon-damage removal or, more likely, the construction industry’s attempt to tame Mother Nature the Lioness. We push on, reaching the pass under a heap of sweat in the fading daylight. By the time we reach Kurama station we are in need of a shower and some serious refreshment.

With the halfway point in my Ōhara 10 quest, I turn my attention to the eastern ridge of Hieizan and the mighty Mt Daibi.